Trigger Warning, includes death
Seriously, this is one of the most difficult blog posts I have written. I have been thinking of it for some time and just have not been able to bring myself to actually articulate the words, let alone type them. However, this pandemic is seriously making me face some tough truths, none of which are exactly comfortable to acknowledge, especially when it comes to death.
I imagine the majority of you are being hit hard in at least one area of your life right now. Whether it be financially, physically, or within a relationship, none of us could ever have prepared for what our world would look like at this very moment. I can’t imagine any of us would have predicted this reality when the world shut down in March of 2020.
There are times when death sneaks up on us without warning. That was the case with my brother a few years back. Honestly, out of all of the people in my life, I truly thought he would be the one to outlive us all. He didn’t. Ironically, he had made plans ago meet us that next week. No one could have predicted his untimely and unexpected passing.
Other times you have warning. For instance, we knew my mom was ill, we just didn’t realize exactly how far she had declined. The last day we talked, I received a call a short time later, saying she was declining and she wanted me to make a decision about her being vented. I was so taken aback, after all, I had just chatted with her a few hours before. To this day, I remember hearing her in the background and begging me to help her make this decision.
So I asked if she was ready. She was changing her original decision of not prolonging her life (which is not uncommon). Than I asked who her Power of Attorney was (POA) and was told it was me.
Keep in mind, this conversation as taking place in front of my boys’ school, as I picked them up for the day. I briefly remember asking one of my friends to take the boys until I completed the phone call. After all, illness doesn’t occur when it’s a convenient time.
She went on the vent
I knew from the moment she went on the vent that she would not come back to us. She was depressed, she was lonely and her body was failing. As her POA, I received countless updates and had unlimited decisions to make on her behalf throughout the next three days.
None of it was easy.
The only thing that was keeping her alive were medical interventions. I arrived three days later and on the drive, I received a panicked phone call from family, telling me she was declining fast. Consequently, I was unsure if I would reach the hospital before she passed away. With the help of my sister in law and my dad, I arrived at the hospital and incidentally, I had totally forgotten how to get there, even though that was my hometown.
Those last moments
It isn’t a secret that my mom and I had an adversarial relationship, but she was my mom. She gave birth to me. She fought her demons, but don’t we all? I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived, but for hours, my aunt, uncle and cousin and I sat around and told silly stories, which I am sure my mom listened to. While it was a shitty time to visit, we actually had a few laughs.
Then they all left and it was just me and mom. I pulled up a chair and sat by her bed and as the minutes ticked by, I watched her heart rate become sporadic. Her heart rate would dip and skip beats, before getting back into a rhythm. I watched her hands and feet turn dark. As medical personal stopped in to check on both of us, I sat in awe of her body shutting down.
I held her hand and played music that I haven’t listened to in year, cracking bad jokes because that’s what I do when I am uncomfortable. Of note, other than being with my pets when it was their time, I had never witnessed another living being shut down. It was painful. It was emotional, and it was so final.
A decision needed to be made
The next morning, I felt compelled to make a decision I did NOT want to make. However, watching her struggle was unfair and she had declared me as her decision maker. When I talked to the nurse, she knew enough about impending death that she told me it would be soon; as mom was already fading away from us.
I made the calls and together with my aunt, cousin and family friend, we gave her permission to go. And as her heart rate faded away, we said our final goodbyes. There were so many mixed emotions at that time because while we knew it was in her best interest, it was so incredibly final.
My mom’s passing never quite goes away. Being with someone as they pass is both a privilege and a curse as it is beautiful and painful. My consciousness understand that she is no longer in pain and she is reunited with loved ones who were already gone, but my heart still holds on. It’s the what if’s that are haunting.
Covid 19 robs our current society of the ability to be with a loved one when that time comes. Our loved ones are forced to die alone, or with caretaker who are hidden behind protective gear. They don’t have someone there to guide them into the next life, nor can they hear the words of their family and friends, telling them it is ok to go.
Covid 19 is a cruel their who is robbing us of what makes us humans…the ability to touch, to psychically connect and to provide comfort when it is most needed. My heart is breaking for the patients who have or will succumb and the staff members who do their best to accommodate their needs.
For once, I have no advice or motivational words. This just fuckin sucks.Take care of you, my friend.
Seniors and suicide
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, “seniors make up 12% of our population but are 18% of all suicide deaths”. This study was created pre-covid. And while the statistics are yet to be available, I would expect these numbers will rise drastically as our oldest community members continue to live in isolation.
In the state of Nebraska, suicide is the 7th leading cause of death for ages 55-64 and the 18th leading cause of death for those over 65 (Suicide Facts and Figures, Nebraska 2020). Additionally, Census.gov reports that 14% of Nebraska residents are seniors and 30% of them are living alone. That leaves a high percentage of that 70% residing in long term care or assisted living facilities. And due to Covid 19, the majority of those facilities are on lockdown.
What Lockdown Looks like
If you have ever been to a senior community, you know that community is the key word. We expect a sense of community, interaction and activity. Now due to Covid 19, you are often met with a stifling silence. The new normal upon entering a facility is:
- Document on a questionnaire your current symptoms.
- Take your temperature and record it.
- Don a mask.
And this is just for those who are able to enter. Since March of 2020, essential workers are the only people who are permitted into these facilities.
Staff suffers too
I’ll be honest as my heart hurts for the administrators and staff. They are in these positions out of true love and respect for the people they work. They are taking this personally and are going above and beyond to be more on on the floor and interacting with the residents.
However, that doesn’t take the place of family visitation. In many cases, our seniors are quarantined in their rooms, looking at the same four walls daily. Visitation with family is done through a window, each placing their hands on the respective side while hiding the tears that are forming. Phone calls have taken the place of physically hearing a loved one’s voice. And hugs are no longer allowed.
During quarantine communal meals have been deemed unsafe, so they miss their dinner companions. There are no more Bingo tournaments or community sing alongs. They can’t meet a friend and work on a puzzle together, nor can they do group crafts. The lack of connecting with others can lead a normally “emotionally healthy” person into situational depression.
What Depression Looks like
Depression looks differently in an aging loved one. As many of our seniors also suffer from memory loss and/or dementia, they truly have no understanding of their current situation. This creates additional stressors on both the individual resident and the staff.
A person who once enjoyed activities may now show no interest in t hose activities. They may refuse to color, put together a puzzle or or even participate in physical therapy. Their appetite begins to decline and there is little interest in a favored dessert. A once smiling person may become tearful and express a loss of hope and/or a desire to not go on.
While they may not have a plan to end their life, their overall hopelessness has taken over any shred of their current situation changing. As the time slips by, so does their physical and emotional strength. They present as angry, withdrawn, and are failing to thrive.
What you can do
Realize the effect that Covid 19 is having on this lost population.
- Recognize a change in bevior in a loved one and report it to their respective caregivers. Don’t minimize the overall impact of this pandemic.
- Be honest when talking with your family member and acknowledge how hard this is. Often we try to protect or fragile family members and they may misinterpret your apathy as a disregard for their situation.
- Make an effort to communicate. Make the call, send the letter or the text. Let them know you are thinking of them.
- Send them a care package of their favorite items. Many who are used to doing their own shopping are now unable to do so and are missing having the things they love around them.
- Send notes, cards and drawing to a local facility and let them know the outside world cares.
Recognize that your loved one is grieving. They are grieving the life they once lived. Yes, it is hard to be around them when they are feeling so hopeless. This is about providing hope in an unprecedented time to someone who desperately needs a thread of hope to cling to. And for the unknown future, this is our new normal.
Thoughts? Share with us your experiences with this situation. Email me at:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parenting Moment Pause
At the age of ten, my child is such a character. He is funny, kind, and continuously makes us smile.
When I was ten, I was a fantastic student and a people pleaser, if not a tad bit of a brat. It was at this age that I learned that death is real. It was the summer heading into 5th grade when two of our neighborhood boys were killed in a motorcycle accident. To this day I remember where I was when I heard about it. I was with my best friend and we were babysitting her niece when her parents and aunt came and broke the news.
These friends were also her neighbors and the reality of what had happened was crushing. We would never be the same and our childhood innocence was shattered. Watching our friends parents grieve and watching the community come together to support them was incredibly overwhelming and our childhood minds didn’t realize these moments would stay with us forever.
I want to preserve that innocence in my ten year old for as long as possible. Has he experienced death? Yes. That’s unavoidable. However, as a parent, it is my job to also instill hope, love, and grace.
As I look at my oldest child, I see myself at that same age learning that families don’t always stay together. At 12, my parent’s divorced and life as we knew it was changing. Looking back at that situation as an adult, I see things so differently than I did as a child.
At 12, I took an amazing trip across the country with my brother and my father to celebrate my brother’s graduation. The memories are priceless and still make me smile. For example, crushing my brother at Circus Circus in Las Vegas and him accusing me of cheating ( it sucks when your little sister can kick your ass at the water guns).
Unfortunately, the return home was awful. First my dad moved out, then they traded spots and my mom left. Dad worked nights, so I went from having someone home with me constantly to coming home to an empty house and putting myself to bed. While my brother was there he was living his own life and moving toward his own goals.
At 12 I began parenting myself. As I look at my beautiful 12 year old hormonal son, I can’t imagine him having that responsibility. Granted, there are times he probably would love to be on his own, however that isn’t a choice he is developmentally able to make.
As a child, I was grief-stricken by these events. As an adult, I can look back and recognize the events that forever imprinted my life. As a parent, I can’t imagine the pain my parents and the parents of our friends were going through. “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle you know nothing about” is one of my favorite quotes and I still believe this to be true. We are all hiding behind our smiles and putting our brave faces on for the world.
As a parent, I have experienced my share of grief and I have tried to shield my children from the crushing affects of it. That doesn’t mean they have not seen my cry, for they have. They have lost their beloved pets, uncle and grandmother and they know the circle of life.
And as their parent, I want to protect their innocence. I want to shield them from the ugliness of our world, however that may look. But, as their mom, my job isn’t to do that. It is to equip them and empower them so they can handle whatever comes their way. God help me in doing that. There is a reason they say it takes a village…
Just remember, my friend that we are all doing the best we can at any given moment. Let’s practice grace, not only with one another, but with ourselves as well.
The Lion King
Remember watching the movie and listen to the song, “The Circle of Life” and the celebration that ensued with the birth of the baby? And who didn’t cry with Simba’s father died? I know I am a bawling mess every time I watch that show. there is a part of me that wishes real life was more like cartoons though, as they seem to quickly move through those tough emotions.
In real life, those emotions don’t move that quickly. They ebb and flow, allowing us to feel focused one moment and utterly drowning the next. believe me, I understand why Simba disappeared into the unknown to be alone and refused to come back to what he knew. There are so many emotions vying for control. Guilt, grief, anger, sadness, joy and then they all start to mess together until we are not sure what we feel anymore.
Four years ago we unexpectedly lost my brother. I am still grieving and sometimes that hurt hits as and feels as though I have been gut punched. In the time following, our family lost a well loved minister, two beloved uncles and my mother’s partner. Last year my mom passed. Additionally, my immediate family lost two loving dogs, which also sucked.
For four years, I have been on the fuckin roller coaster of living and loving and crying and grieving. There have been times where I have been truly paralyzed by grief and there have been other times where my motivation to live was overpowering.
Grief doesn’t come with a handbook (ok, maybe a guidebook)…but one size does not fit all. For me, as I struggled, being a mom was my foremost goal and I while I wanted to keep a sense of security for my kids, I knew there were days that I just wasn’t present. Putting a smile on my face while talking to my loved ones about their own losses was so terribly hard. Keeping the consistency of a somewhat schedule and getting the kids where they needed to go kept me focused for short periods of time.
June has some tough anniversaries for my family. First my brother and more recently, we had our mom’s first anniversary of her death. Sometimes I think the anticipation of the anniversary can be worse than going through the day itself. Honestly, I suck at remembering anniversaries but my mind and body seem to know what’s going on, even when I don’t.
The best unsolicited advice I can give anyone reading this is the following. “be gentle with yourself”. Grief can come in like a fricken hurricane, go into a wave pool and return to a level five storm before we even know what we are dealing with. I now there were so many times I was figuratively getting ready to dip a toe into the water and BOOM, I was fricken sinking into the deep end.
It’s time to live
I know one thing. My brother would be irritated with me for not stepping up and taking life by the wings. He was a live in the moment type of guy and I remember him always falling asleep in his recliner because he ran himself ragged. While my mom’s body just wore out. She never recovered from the death of my brother, and especially the death of her other half, Ray.
She was done and her body was done. Thus the circle of life was complete.
Both of them taught me that life is meant to live. So challenge yourself today to take a new route. Step out of your comfort zone. Share those compliments you keep in your head. After all, sometimes tomorrow never comes…and what will your legacy be?
The Empty Christmas Tree
It’s ten days from Christmas and our tree is still standing empty, begging for decorations and presents. It is awaiting a happy family to stand around while strategically placing their personal ornaments and alight it with joy. Incidentally, our house is in total disarray from the flooding of our kitchen and only half of the house has festive holdiay decorations. The tree stands empty.
We proudly brought our family tree home last week and just haven’t found the time to decorate it. The kids have activities, dad has been ill, and honestly, mom just hasn’t been in the spirit.
Grief and the Holidays
Here’s what no one tells you about grief. Or maybe they do and I just wasn’t listening. Grief hits hardest in the least expected times. As a social worker, I understand the stages of grief and the roller coaster of emotions that we all experience. Additionally, I recognize the ability to personalize the most innocent statement from a family member while wondering what the hell they are thinking. For a licensed social worker, I really suck at feeling emotions.
I am just not as festive as I usually am. As a mom, this sucks, because I want to create amazing Christmas memories for my boys. I don’t want them to suffer because their mom is dealing with my own issues. So where do we find the balance? How do I let go of the avoidance?
Not Dealing is Avoidance
This season is the first one without my mom. While we had a tempestuous relationship and often failed to understand one another, she trusted me with her last will and testament. For me, that is an honor that I don’t take lightly. Granted, it is a total pain in the ass and trying to make things happen from another state is compounding the stress. However, she trusted me to carry out her final wishes and I will make that happen. My internal struggle comes from pushing through those demands and trying to put on a smile for my boys and celebrate our blessings in the hear and now.
Until my late 40’s, I had never had to be the responsible child. After all, I had a pretty amazing older brother who took care of the tough stuff and only filled me in when he thought I needed to know something. When he passed away, those expectations passed onto me. I am pretty sure my extended family thinks my mom was crazy for leaving these decisions to me…after all, I am the wild child… the one who does my own thing and who really likes to live in a bubble. In other words, I like avoidance.
Truth be told, I also wondered if I could step up. But I did, and I will. Because she trusted me to do so. Adulting is tough and watching your parent pass away, regardless of the relationship between you definately changes you. It changes how you feel about the world and it provides a sense of mortality that only comes from that experience.
Stay in the moment
My friend, I know you are grieving. Do what you need to do for you. Will others disagree and judge? Absolutely, but they are not walking your walk. They only know their own pain and grief. And we all grieve differently. We tend to focus on our own pain and forget that others are also struggling. Be kind and try to be gentle with others and with yourself.
Stay in the moment. Today, I am going to go shower, put on some makeup and gather my family around our naked Christmas Tree. Together we will create a masterpiece of memories and together we will smile as we remember the story behind each ornament. I will allow myself to cry when I need to (I really do suck at this) and I will allow myself to be happy and guilt free when those moments arise.
The passing of our loved ones creates waves of emotions that we may not be prepared for, however it also allows us to remember why we loved them in the first place. Never underestimate the connection between love and grief.
And for you? Merry Christmas. Celebrate how you need to for you and yours.
Actually, you don’t. I understand are two words that I fucking hate to hear someone say to me. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe those words are said with love and compassion. But let’s get something straight…You Don’t Understand. And to be honest, I don’t understand what you are going through either.
I understand is something we say when we don’t know what else to say. It is something to fill in the uncomfortable silence when we get too close to someone else’s tragic circumstances. Too often, we say “I understand” when we have similar experiences and want to let other’s know they aren’t alone.
Your experiences shape your understanding. Considering this, there are no two people in the world who will experience the same event in the exact same way. This is one reason that law enforcement doesn’t give too much credibility to witness statements. If ten people are interviewed about an incident, all ten statements will differ in some aspect. People focus on events based on who they are. Smells, sights, sounds, and even tastes may change based upon who is experiencing them.
And if an experience induces a feeling of trauma, all bets are off. Emotions will dull your senses as your fight or flight kicks in and you will be in survival mode. Many times when a loved one passes away, those left behind are blinded by their own pain. They forget there are others hurting and often personalize the behavior of their family and friends. Everything becomes about them and words and actions are often miscommunicated. Thus the reason that many families drift away after the loss of a beloved matriarch or patriarch…it appears that everyone feels slighted by others. Unfortunately, this is not the intent, it is the by-product of grief.
How to help a friend who is grieving
When I lost my brother, it was devastating. He was my rock and the one who was supposed to outlive us all. I had no idea how many people I knew had lost a sibling and when they began reaching out, I realized I wasn’t alone. Were our experiences the same? No. However, we all became part of a club that none of us wanted to belong to and we realized we were not alone. We could bond over the loss and share our experiences, both positive and negative.
For me, some of the kindest things others have done is to just be there. I have one friend who knows that I hide away when I am struggling and she leaves messages for me, knowing I will call back when I am ready. I have other friends who often ask how I am doing and they call me out on my bullshit when I tell them I am ok.
I often joke that as a social worker, I suck at my own emotions. Truthfully, I am more comfortable with helping others, which are totally forms of denial and avoidance. So just let me know you are here. Let me ramble. Listen as I tell stories. Empathize with my situation, just please don’t tell me that you understand.
What helped me
I love the book “It’s Not Supposed to be This Way” by Lisa TerKeurst. It resonated with me. For so long, I have been stuck within my grief. Within a short time frame, many influential people in my life passed away and each one left a feeling of emptiness. However, as I explain to my children, this is the circle of life and as hard as it is to understand, it means we felt deep love. That is a blessing for I cannot imagine living life without love.
Prayer. I believe in the power of prayer. I have seen God work through people and I know He is with us. Furthermore, I believe we will once again be reunited with our loved ones.
Being honest about how I am feeling. This is a kicker for me because as I mentioned, I suck at this. There have been times in the past few years that I have been treading water…simply treading. And occasionally I find myself back in that same place. I expend energy but I don’t move forward.